Sleep for me is number two on the prioritisation list of things that impact my well being, following diet. Ollie would say I obsess about it – maybe I do, but anyone else who has struggled with insomnia like I have will understand why. As a child I struggled to get to sleep every single night, often seeing my watch hands meet midnight despite having gone to bed at 7pm. By the time I got to university there were occasions when I actually would not fall asleep at all through the whole night. During the latter part of my twenties, through trial and error, I developed a series of strategies that have almost eliminated insomnia from my life.
These 10 strategies have resulted in my sleep quality improving from taking around an hour to get to sleep each night and waking up 3-4 times, to falling asleep within 20 mins and waking up only once or twice. I sleep deeper, and wake up feeling refreshed more often.
My Top Ten Strategies for a Good Night’s Sleep:
1. Avoid eating a heavy evening meal
If your body is still digesting when you go to bed, it will struggle to shut down and allow you to drift off. I try to eat small portions in the evening, putting my fork down once i’m about 70% full. When I sit down after dinner, I’m satisfied but not at all uncomfortable. I also find it helps to avoid too much protein (i.e. a massive steak) too close to bedtime as protein takes longer to digest.
2. Eat as early as possible in the evening
The ideal is to eat your evening meal three hours before you want to go to bed. I go to bed pretty early, particularly in the summer when I get up to surf in the morning, so this is never actually realistic – but I do sleep and feel better if I manage to eat around 7pm.
3. Cut down on sugar
By now you all know how I feel about sugar, it just ain’t good for you. In amongst the list of bad things that sugar does to you is the fact that it can negatively impact the quality of your sleep. This isn’t because sugar wakes you up or keeps you alert (in fact I’ve read some papers that indicate the contrary). The reason a high sugar diet can prevent you maximising your beauty sleep is that if you live on a sugar roller coaster, it’s likely to crash in the night causing an adrenalin surge that wakes you up.
4. Ideally avoid alcohol in the evening
Although studies have shown that alcohol can help you fall asleep and sleep more deeply for a short while, overall it reduces the amount of time that you spend in REM sleep – which is the restorative part.
I’ve found that one drink on a weeknight or two on a weekend when I go to bed a bit later doesn’t have too much of an impact, any more definitely does. Everyone will be different here – and some people may not want to try this one!
5. Avoid light emitting technology use past 7pm if possible
Ever noticed how reading on your phone or tablet late in the evening makes you feel less sleepy than you should? A study carried out by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explains why. The results of the study confirmed that two hours of iPad use at maximum brightness suppresses normal nighttime release of melatonin, the hormone that gets you ready for sleepy time.
I’ve found that putting my tech away before dinner helps me wind down and sleep better.
6. Avoid working late, arguing late or doing anything else in the evening that raises stress levels
Most people will be familiar with the hormone Cortisol and its association with stress. Cortisol also plays a key role in our daily cycles of sleepiness and wakefulness. When we are in perfect balance we will experience a peak of Cortisol levels in the morning around 9am, with levels slowly dropping off through the day to a low at midnight.
Daily stressors such as arguing with a partner and work frustrations raise the levels of cortisol in our bloodstream. High levels of cortisol in the evening disrupt the natural pattern, the impact of which can be much lighter sleep with frequent waking. For this reason it’s best to try to avoid anything that will make you feel irritated later in the evening.
7. If you come home feeling wired and stressed; make some space in your evening to wind down properly
Allowing yourself time to properly transition from work to home does wonders for how you feel in the evening. If I’ve had a big day and come home feeling wired I take 10-20 minutes whilst dinner is bubbling to do a bit of bedtime yoga. My favourite is this one by Yoga with Adriene.
8. Don’t rush through your evening
I’ve found that I end the day way more chilled if I try not to treat my evening as a to do list to power through as quick as I possibly can before landing on the sofa. I take time over chopping and cooking, forgetting the gym bag I’ve got to pack, washing I’ve got to put away and lunches I’ve got to make. This one is easier when the above point has already been ticked off and I’ve made time to unwind.
9. Don’t use bedtime as the time to start thinking through problems
I don’t know about anyone else but if the day and evening have been busy, when my head finally hits that pillow, my brain seems to think that this quiet time is opportune for analysing the day that’s gone and planning the days that’s to come. To gently ease myself out of this habit I use sleepy meditation techniques such as the one included on my favourite meditation app HeadSpace.
10. Invest in earplugs and an eye mask
This may seem obvious but I’ve found that using earplugs and an eye mask have an incredible impact on how well I sleep. Aside from keeping the Aussie morning orchestra from rousing me at 5am, ear plugs prevent snoring Ollie or heavy footed neighbours from disturbing my night’s rest. If it’s noisy when I go to bed I put them in straight away. If not, as I do always wake up once in the night, I wait until I wake so as to limit the amount of time the earplugs are in, meaning less chance of sore ears. I have tiny ear canals so it took a good few years to find some that I can wear comfortably. I currently use Mack’s slim fit (the purple ones) – which I buy in bulk!
It might seem overwhelming to completely change up and implement 10 new strategies tonight. You definitely don’t have to try this all at once, particularly if it might stress you out remembering it all! Think of the one thing that might be having the biggest impact on you personally and commit to changing that one thing for 7 days to see if it makes a difference.
Good luck – and sleep tight!